Time limits on public hearings

Richmond council addressed time limits on public hearings. Whether that was a good idea or not, the Garden City Lands Public Hearing in March 2008 showed that the system was helping democracy just fine. The Richmond Review published my letter on the issue under the heading “Public wasn’t the problem with Garden City lands public hearing,” but the link no longer works. This is a March 22, 2010, update with the letter included.

Re “City mulls hearing time limits” (Sept. 10):

Kudos to Coun. Evelina Halsey-Brandt for refusing to “fix” what isn’t broken. She held firm in responding to proposed clamps on citizen input at public hearings like the Garden City lands one. That six-day hearing in March 2008 had shortcomings, but the public were not the problem.

Let’s review the facts. All the input to council in the scheduled 3.5-hour period the first day and the entire last day of that hearing was from the consortium applying to exclude the lands from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Apart from a little overtime the first day, the public spoke on only four days out of six.

The factor that knocked out a lot of would-be speakers was the applicants’ first-day filibuster. The media-estimated 300 people who had jammed the council chambers, spilling out the doors, were silenced for hours until survivors shouted out for mercy. As the long speakers’ list showed, many had hoped not just to hear each other’s input but also to address council. After the ordeal, the attendance drop-off and speakers-list dropouts were inevitable.

My next-day presentation, after I had let speakers move ahead of me, took about an hour. It was intended as the Garden City Lands Coalition rebuttal to the applicants’ multi-hour filibuster and multi-hundred-page application. It was highly informed and organized, with visual aids throughout. Since council questions extended it to almost ninety minutes, it must have been of interest.

The Garden City lands public hearing held by Richmond council was in lieu of a public hearing by the Agricultural Land Commission, and the video and text records might have been the only public input to the commission (although further input was later invited). To the extent that the city facilitated participation, it was doing its duty. And by the way, I think the commission actually paid attention, since a commissioner who remembered me from the public-hearing video approached me at the end of their August 2008 meeting with the applicants.

At the Garden City lands public hearing, ordinary people who had never attended a council meeting or made a speech came to listen and gradually mustered the resolve to address council. I picked up all sorts of insights from them, including much that was inspiring from youthful and elderly citizens. Very few wasted time, and an intimidating five-minute countdown clock would have worked against them.

Many who opposed the application spoke convincingly about our true community needs. The applicants seeking high-density development on the farmland had relied most on a community-need argument, but citizens’ voices must have cancelled it out, since the commission’s decision gave it no credence. That rejection result was a good one for all who want to conserve the Garden City lands as green space, and the public hearing aspect that facilitated it was good for democracy.


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